Friday, February 11, 2011

Modern Classic Movie Review: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

From about the mid-1990s to the first years of the twenty-first century, starting with the mainstream introduction of Jackie Chan in North America, Asian martial arts films achieved something beyond the cult status they once had. It was probably a question of time and perhaps somewhat inevitable that eventually one would go on to garner the kind of awards that indicate a certain level of popular acceptance. That it happened only five years after Jackie Chan’s first US hit, Rumble in the Bronx, is somewhat remarkable.

When Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was released it quickly became one of the most successful subtitle films of all time. It was nominated for 10 Oscars – a record for a foreign language film. There were reports of applause in movie theaters at the conclusion of the first fight and chase sequence along the rooftops. Although it continued a grand tradition of martial arts films involving mysticism, the warrior’s philosophy, and seemingly supernatural powers, this was the first time it was not only seen en masse, but with stunning production value.

If you grew up watching cheap kun fu movies on Sunday afternoons then there may be some kind of disconnect seeing such lush costume design, detailed art direction, skilled cinematography, and one of the most gorgeous film scores applied to what is essentially a glorified kung fu serial. In a way this is the Star Wars of kung fu. George Lucas’s space opera was little more than a big budget version of a Flash Gordon serial.

Ang Lee seemed an odd choice to direct this subject matter at the time. At that time his biggest titles as director were the Jane Austen adaptation Sense and Sensibility and the 1970s suburban melodrama The Ice Storm. But since Crouching Tiger he’s revealed himself to be interested in working in all genres including western (Brokeback Mountain) and superhero action (Hulk). One unifying theme that has emerged from his work is the effects of a forbidden love on individuals. There are two romantic relationships central to Crouching Tiger – one youthful, na├»ve, and impulsive; and the other more mature and tragic.

Chow Yun Fat plays Li Mu Bai, a renowned warrior of the Wudan School. The script by Hui-Ling Yang, Kuo Jung Tsai and James Schamus, based on a book by Du Lu Wang, very wisely leaves much of the explanation of Wudan aside, allowing the film to maintain an aura of mystery. It’s obvious fairly quickly that the Wudan style teaches its capable pupils to do unearthly things like run up the sides of walls and float along rooftops.

Li gives up his Green Sword of Destiny, a rejection of the warrior life and a gesture toward Lien (Michelle Yeoh), the woman he has loved for many years. The tragedy of their love for one another is that both restricted themselves from acting on their feelings because of the strictures of the world they live in that doesn’t permit them to lead personal lives, relegating them to lives of quiet desperation.

Quiet desperation is the best phrase to describe Chow’s performance. Yeoh’s is almost as desperate, but she is marginally more resigned to the life she chose, recognizing in a key conversation with Jen (Ziyi Zhang) that it was her choice she has to live with. Watch the expressions and body language of the two actors when Li and Lien see each other for the first time. Without a single spoken word, their bodies express all the love they have had for each other and suppressed.

The other two central characters are Jen and Lo, or “Dark Cloud” as he is known to others. She is an aristocrat’s daughter betrothed to someone she does not ove. Her special gifts have been fomented in secret since she was a girl. She is a student of Wudan, but trained by Jade Fox (Pei-pei Cheng), the older woman who stole the Wudan manual and killed Li’s master. Jen is good at keeping secrets: her secret lover; her secret martial arts training; the fact that she’s a more skilled artist than Jade Fox is a secret she’s kept since childhood. But she cannot keep the secret from Lien that she stole the Green Destiny.

The story is a pretty standard hero’s journey and love story, but it’s mostly the technical details that make Crouching Tiger stand out. The fight choreography by Yuen Wo Ping (also responsible for The Matrix) is masterful in its balletic beauty. The fight scenes are staged like dance routines, unlike typical action movies with fast cutting that hide the stunt me, poor choreography and seams in the work. Lee’s camera, working with his cinematographer Peter Pau, allows us to view the fights from aerial shots and lots of wide shots. We really get to see how the characters spar with one another. One fight scene is like a floating dream (the chase over the rooftops); one is like a sparring dance (the one-on-one between Jen and Lien); another is graceful and mesmerizing (Li and Jen in the bamboo trees); still another is technically brilliant and comical (Jen in the restaurant against about 20 men). This last one is expertly placed within the story to provide a respite before the heavy lifting that comes later.

The action scenes are done without the aid of CGI and visual trickery, with the exception of using digital processing to remove the wires that suspend the characters in midair allowing them to perform their flips and great leaps. This film stands as a testament to traditional effects, proving (to me anyway) that the eye can detect a difference between cartoon images and the real thing. It is primarily this aspect of the movie that keeps me drawn in.

Then there’s the ethereal and magical score by Tan Dun with cellos solos performed by the exquisite Yo Yo Ma. The score that beat out Hans Zimmer’s Gladiator themes for the Oscar would have to be spectacular, and is it ever! It brings a delicate touch to a film that is often simultaneously pensive and kinetic without being frenetic.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon ages like a fine wine. With each subsequent viewing I find myself more impressed by its artistry. The benefit it has over that bottle of wine sitting on the shelf, however, is that you can keep revisiting it without ever spoiling the taste.

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